Understanding your audience

Market research

The schools system in the UK has undergone rapid change with the advent of the coalition government; the creation of free schools and the growing support for academies are just some of the big initiatives. Funding is an issue across the board, and academies are seen by many as an increasingly attractive alternative to the traditional model, whether they are sponsored academies, or converted local authority schools.

The futures and expectations of the country’s school leavers are also changing. With a university education now seen to be financially out of reach for some students, particularly if they live away from home, schools are adapting the advice that pupils receive on what next steps they should take.

“The focus, both in schools and universities, is on two things – value for money and employability,” says David Smith, director at DVL Smith, a full-service research agency and MRS Company Partner. “We are experts at education research and we know that our clients have massive pressures on their budgets and very little flexibility. However, using reliable research provides insights that you just wouldn’t get any other way. It gives you an expert professional team that knows the sector inside out, delivering accurate findings and offering an independent view. With research you can find out whether you are spending the right money in the right area, and understand your stakeholders.”

Professional advice
Good research is only available from professionals. Vanella Jackson, chairman of the Market Research Society (MRS), explains: “Accredited suppliers offer you a guaranteed deliverable; timely, efficient and accurate research which has been conducted fairly and ethically, and gives you valuable insights.”     

Market and social research is often thought of as online or face-to-face clipboard surveys, but as David Smith, an MRS Fellow and former chairman describes, there are many more options available: “Qualitative research can give you great results; not everything is high cost. This might include an audit of existing sources and some telephone interviews, for example. Doing this with a research supplier, rather than handling it internally, means you get efficient results, from a team with an objective view of the situation.”

Research methodologies
There are broadly two kinds of research methodologies used, qualitative and quantitative, and each serves their purpose. A good researcher will know which methodology to use, in what way and to what scale in order to best address a client’s business issue.

Both have different sample sizes – qualitative is typically small sample research, while quantitative uses large amounts of data. Qualitative research could involve evaluation of teaching tools using a small sample to create improved products, or sensitive research with small hard-to-reach groups who would not normally respond to traditional research methods such as surveys or telephone interviews. On the other hand, quantitative research involves big sample sizes, such as the National Student Survey, and covers larger-scale issues where an understanding of the views of a large number of people is important.

To take the example of new school models, such as academies, a mixture of research types can give the clearest picture when looking at everything from motivations for becoming an academy, to the impact of changing the curriculum, budgets and the length of a school day. All are common issues and concerns among education authorities, governors, staff and parents when the decision to move to academy status is being made.

Rules and guidelines
MRS upholds a number of rules and guidelines to ensure good practice across sectors. Professionals that are MRS members and organisations that are MRS Company Partners have to abide by the MRS Code of Conduct, which provides a step by step guide to effective, fair and ethical research.

The MRS Code of Conduct, together with relevant legislation such as the Data Protection Act of 1998, provides a strict professional set of legal and ethical parameters that ensure that research is conducted properly. When these legal and ethical rules and guidelines are met, research can provide an unparalleled insight into the thoughts and opinions of customers and audiences that can redefine the way decisions are made.

The MRS website should be your first port of call for finding a good research organisation. The site includes A Newcomer’s Guide to Market Research, as well as the annually updated Research Buyer’s Guide, which lists MRS Company Partners and organisations along with MRS members, their contact details, geographic area and industry specialisms. All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.

Reform in education seems set to continue and with so many stakeholders affected it will be important for education providers – whether local authorities or academy companies – to understand the impact it may have. In a time of change, research can provide robust evidence to aid decision-making and provide insights into future impacts.

Case study
Qualitative research by EdComs helped the Co-operative Group to understand the impact of their work with academies and trust schools across the UK and shape their future education strategy.

The Co-operative movement has been involved in education for many years with the aim of promoting co-operative values and improving the life chances of children and young people. Over the past ten years the Co-operative Group, alongside the Co-operative College and the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland, has supported over 100 schools in becoming Co-operative Trust schools and Co-operative Academies.

In light of the recent and wide ranging changes within the education sector, the Co-operative Group sought to understand the practices, values and impacts of different models of school governance and engagement to inform the development of a sustainable, impactful model of future activity within education. Taking stock following a period in which the Co-operative school network had expanded rapidly was felt to be critical in understanding what was working and for whom.

The educational research consultancy EdComs, an MRS Company Partner, was commissioned in 2010 to provide research and consultancy support to assist strategy development. Qualitative research was undertaken with senior stakeholders across the co-operative movement in order to understand their vision for both the Co-operative Group and the wider co-operative movement’s engagement in education. The findings of this research were looked at alongside a review of existing strategies and monitoring data, in order to outline delivery models and identified impacts.

Understanding engagement
Having developed a stronger understanding of the background context, telephone interviews were undertaken with school and local authority representatives from across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to gain insights around schools’ motivations for engaging with the Co-operative, as well as views on the support received, perceived impacts, challenges experienced and future support needed.

In order to provide the Co-operative Group with more holistic and illustrative examples of co-operative values in action within the different school governance models, case studies were conducted in which researchers visited schools to talk to students, teachers, school governors, parents and partners. This enabled EdComs to develop engaging, school-specific case studies which highlighted the wide-range of impacts on students, schools and local communities.

EdComs worked closely with both the Co-operative Group and the wider Co-operative stakeholders in developing the research approach and in the dissemination of the research findings. This relationship enabled EdComs to deliver actionable findings, alongside consultancy support, directly informing the Co-operative Group Education Strategy.

“Understanding the impact the Co-operative Group and its education partners has made in our schools has been key to developing our future strategy. We needed an organisation that could work with our complex networks, had a strong empathy with our values and understood the education sector, Edcoms were therefore a perfect fit. The research has helped us identify the key areas where we need to change direction, areas of success and areas where we could add value with our schools. It has been a highly valuable process and I believe our new strategy is stronger and has greater clarity of purpose thanks to the research,” said Mags Bradbury, national projects manager, The Co-operative.

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